Trade Minister heads to China as football diplomacy breaks the ice
The second-year excitement of an AFL premiership points match in China may have died down, but this year's match between Port Adelaide and the Gold Coast could end up being more significant.
- Ciobo's visit appears to end an unofficial freeze on Australian ministers being invited to China
- Julie Bishop and Malcolm Turnbull are due to travel to China this year
- They both haven't received invitations to date
It comes after a tumultuous 12 months which has seen tough rhetoric, a political resignation and claims of racism over Australian concerns about Chinese interference.
In a sign of a diplomatic breakthrough, the match at Shanghai's Jiangwan stadium will be attended by Trade and Tourism Minister Steve Ciobo — the first Australian minister to visit China in eight months.
Mr Ciobo's visit appears to end an unofficial freeze on Beijing issuing invitations to Australian ministers.
"Our trade and investment relationship with China is strong, and yes there are areas where Australia and China have some differences", Mr Ciobo said ahead of the trip.
"But let's not make the mistake of thinking the differences overshadow the many strong benefits of the relationship".
At its lowest point during the diplomatic spat, nationalistic elements of China's state media described the debate about Communist Party influence as "hysterical paranoia full of racial undertones".
Even a more moderate outlet, China Daily, at one point called Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull "China-basher-in-chief".
Mr Turnbull resorted to using Mandarin last December to emphasise Australia's sovereign right to introduce new anti-espionage laws, amidst an influence scandal that ultimately forced Labor rising star Sam Dastyari to resign from politics.
Throughout it all, China's Government has at no point recognised any of the claims about Communist Party interference, dismissing them as "unfounded" and putting the onus on the Australian side to repair the relationship.
"Diplomatically there has been a kind of sensitivity between the two countries and there have been constant and consistent attacks on China from all fronts", said Professor Chen Hong, an close observer of the relationship at East China Normal University in Shanghai.
Beijing has also issued multiple safety warnings for Chinese nationals living in Australia — prompting fears from both the tourism and education sectors of a drop off in visitor and student numbers.
The spat temporarily affected some educational ties, with representatives from at least one Group of Eight university having meetings with Chinese counterparts refused or delayed — a situation that has since been resolved.
But to date, both Chinese students and tourists continue to come to Australia in record numbers.
"The absence of high-level meetings between our two countries is definitely not normal, so Minister Ciobo's visit is a signal there might be some positive developments", Professor Chen said.
Business groups said a visit to China by both Julie Bishop and the Mr Turnbull was needed to further mend ties.
Both are due to travel to China this year but to date have not received invitations.
"The success of this week will really be what follows", said Jack Brady of the Australian Chamber of Commerce in Shanghai.
"Come Saturday the grass will be perfect, it's got the potential to be the most watched game in the history of AFL, but the success will be the business introductions, the networking and the trade conversations happening around the sidelines."